The character-building and leadership skills that make up the core of the FFA program help young people develop into engaged community members that make a positive contribution to their communities and to society as a whole over their lifetimes. Jay Meyer, a 1970 Stevensville High School graduate who was FFA Chapter President that year, went on to teach fourth grade at Stevensville for 25 years, and recently received an Honorary American FFA degree, the highest degree an individual can receive, for “going beyond valuable daily contributions to make an extraordinary long-term difference in the lives of students…”
Meyer is a good example of the potential impact of FFA, and two more examples are Laura Frazee-Sonsteng and Lacey Sutherlin, a couple of Stevensville community dynamos who are heading up what they’re calling the “inaugural” Black Tie in the Bitterroot” New Year’s Eve Gala. These Stevensville FFA Alumni members are co-chairs of this fundraising event being put on by the Alumni to benefit the Stevensville FFA program.
These energetic women and the committee of volunteers they are working with are thinking big for this, because they are absolutely passionate about the FFA program and its benefits to students. The event will be held December 31st at St. Mary’s Family Center starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $125 per person or $1000 for a table of 8 (which includes champagne and some business advertising). There will be a tri-tip dinner, cash bar, live auction, and dancing to the music of “Shane Clouse & Stomping Ground.”
All the money raised, after expenses, will go to the Stevensville FFA chapter for scholarships to attend leadership conferences and camps and to help with travel expenses for all the FFA trips.
According to Sutherlin, there are 200 members enrolled in the local chapter. She said that of those, 75 are “extremely active.” Throughout the year they attend about a dozen events – for competitions and leadership training – and those trips are costly. For example, recently members competed in 21 different events at John Deere Days in Bozeman. These Career Development and Leadership Events (CDEs) cover many different areas, such as public speaking, livestock judging, agriculture mechanics, veterinary sciences, parliamentary procedures, sales, ag issues, meats, farm business management, and agronomy, to name a few.
FFA members also choose a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) for their high school career. An SAE is something they create and manage like a business, keeping records on the expenses and income, giving them experience in organizational skills and money management.
Both Frazee-Sonsteng and Sutherlin had high praise for the Agriculture Education teachers who also serve as the FFA advisors. “They coach and teach all those kids,” said Sutherlin.
Josette Hackett is the Agriculture Education instructor and FFA Advisor in the high school, a job she’s had since 2012. She said the Agriculture Education program has four levels that correspond with the high school grade levels and offers a variety of exposure to many different agriculture-related careers. In addition to that, there are classes in Ag Woods, Ag Construction, Veterinary Science and Ag Mechanics & Welding.
“The kids get exposed to a variety of careers that are available in the field of agriculture,” said Hackett. She said that any student taking an Ag Education class is automatically enrolled in the FFA chapter. “A high percentage of our kids are not farm kids, but they’re just interested in agriculture-related fields.”
With the addition of a second Agriculture Education teacher at Stevensville, the program has been expanded to include the middle school. Trevor Motley, who teaches the middle school program, is an example of a non-farm kid who excelled in FFA. Motley is a Stevensville graduate and an FFA Alumni member. He started teaching at Stevensville in 2021. He teaches Ag Woods and Ag Construction.
“I think that FFA definitely prepares students for life after high school in different ways,” said Motley. “If it hadn’t been for the program, I wouldn’t have all the connections that I built in FFA. When you show up at a college here in Montana or even out of state, it’s easy to make friends with people who have similar experiences and values.”
Motley also said he was pleased to be working in the new Vo-Ag facility that was part of the school’s recent improvement project. “The new facility is really awesome,” said Motley. “It’s definitely a step up from when I was in high school.”
“It really does take a lot of fundraising to move that many kids and have them experience all these activities outside of the classroom,” said Hackett. “The Alumni raises money for scholarships for seniors, and also to go to different camps, and also travel expenses for the program.”
“The biggest thing about FFA is it prepares you for your future,“ said Sutherlin, who in addition to running a ranch with her husband, is the district sales manager for ABS Global, a worldwide cattle genetics company. She manages 22 sales representatives in Montana, Wyoming, Northern Idaho and Washington as they work with beef cattle producers to succeed at their genetic goals. “I made so many connections through livestock judging,” said Sutherlin. “I went to National FFA as a team member and that’s how I ended up getting my scholarships for college. FFA gives you such a good foundation to be a good person. For example, learning how to debate and show the multiple sides of an issue with civil discourse and parliamentary procedure. Where else can you learn that?”
Both Sutherlin and Frazee-Sonsteng were state FFA officers. Both attended the National FFA Convention and other national conferences. Both graduated from MSU in Bozeman and while there, Frazee-Sonsteng went to Africa through FFA.
“My leadership skills and public speaking experience in FFA really got me involved in the community and prepared me for my career in our family business,” said Frazee-Sonsteng. She is the manager at Burnt Fork Veterinary Clinic. She said FFA also taught her “the importance of investing in your community and giving back. FFA was a great experience for me,” she said, “and I want to help other Stevensville kids to experience the bigger world out there.”
“FFA is such a shining light in our community,” said Sutherlin, “and it gives all kids such a great opportunity. Having the funding to take these trips is important. We want to make sure that any kid who wants to go will be able to.”
To purchase tickets, go to http://stevensville-ffa-supporters.square.site/ or contact Colleen Meyer at 406-777-3926.
To find out about the many sponsorship opportunities available at the gala, contact Frazee-Sonsteng at email@example.com
Frazee-Sonsteng added that they hope to make the “Black Tie in the Bitterroot” gala an annual event. “It should be a fun night for a couple and for a great cause to help out these kids and maybe even help change their lives.”